David Goldblatt: The Colors of South Africa

David Goldblatt: The Colors of South Africa
David Goldblatt, one ofSouth Africa’s most well-known photographers, is cruising the suburbsof this city, documenting its gentrification.

Inthe northern suburbs of Johannesburg, in the aftermath of Apartheid,giant gated luxury developments, built around golf courses, aremushrooming across the land: Islands of identical, newly built housesform surreal-looking communities.

Goldblatt has taken aspecial interest in one of these developments, called Dainfern. There,a massive silver-coloured pipe—a sewage aqueduct—stretches all acrossthis gated living arrangement. “It’s really a shit duct,” Goldblattsays bluntly, as we head north on the highway for a visit to Dainfern.

Thedevelopers of this community have neither mentioned, nor pictured, thesewage aqueduct in any of its advertising for the place, Goldblattsays. “They have marketed it as if the sewer doesn’t exist.” Eventhough it often smells and attracts flies, not even the residentsthemselves admit that the sewage aqueduct is there. “The people wholive there are like the emperor without clothes,” he snickers.

Addingto the quirkiness of his Dainfern series of pictures, Goldblatt hasincorporated quotations from the developers’ brochures, by adding themto the margins of the prints. For example, while Goldblatt’s imagesfeature the gated luxury development complete with sewage aqueduct andbordering shack-settlement, the developers’ text is promoting Englishcountry living: ‘Dear Malcolm, you always write and tell me about yourbeautiful home in the English countryside. Well, I live in a uniquecorner of the earth that could easily rival that,’ a Dainfern publicitybrochure reads.

I was a bit surprised to find this humorousand offbeat side to Goldblatt’s photography, especially after justhaving perused the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s retrospective of hiswork—images heavily steeped in the hardships of Apartheid South Africa.The retrospective extends over 51 years, starting in the 1940s andincludes Goldblatt’s photographs of the Afrikaaners and his work aboutApartheid and the effects of it on the black communities.

Butit’s not Goldblatt who has changed: It is South Africa. Apartheidofficially ended with the democratic elections in 1994, and it’s as ifwith the lifting of the veil of apartheid, Goldblatt’s work has becomeat least slightly more light-hearted. During Apartheid, “there was muchthat was bizarre, but there was not much that was funny,” he says. Nowthat it’s ended, “I’ve allowed myself a degree of liberty I didn’tbefore.”

Goldblatt says his approach in his work really hasn’tchanged much over the years. “My consuming interest has been invalues,” he says. His work examines the values we hold around, forexample, material wealth, racism and AIDS. “I’m interested in thevalues … that bring about change,” he says.

Goldblatt’sdocumentation of Dainfern and of Montecasino—a giant, imitation Tuscanvillage created around a large casino—along with the other housingdevelopments is a study of greed and wealth, he explains. “It’s anencapsulation of much that has been happening in post-apartheid SouthAfrica,” he says. “It’s a metaphor for Jo-burg.”

But theconsequences of Apartheid still remain in South Africa, Goldblattexplains. “It permeates all aspects of life here,” he says.

Onthe border of Dainfern is a shack-settlement of make-shift homes, shedsmade of corrugated iron. The people who were living on the farm thatbecame Dainfern were removed from the site to make way for thedevelopment.

During Apartheid, Goldblatt in his work The Transported of KwaNdebele,documented the excruciatingly long and uncomfortable twice-daily busjourneys of black workers who lived in the segregated “homelands” northeast of Pretoria. The conditions have not changed that much for workerssince, he explains. “The bulk of people who live there still have totravel to Pretoria by road. It’s still a very long commute for themevery day – two to eight hours,” he says. “It will take generations toundo the consequences of Apartheid.”

Another subject Goldblattpursues with his camera in post-Apartheid South Africa is the Africanlandscape; his work is concerned with issues of land and who owns it;and what is happening to monuments and memorials here.

Goldblatt,sometimes accompanied by his wife Lily, travels around the country in arugged camper taking pictures. It can take him to remote and otherwisephysically difficult areas to reach. “I wanted to be able to goeverywhere,” he says.

Certain boundaries have eased up in thepast decade. During apartheid, for example, Goldblatt had to getpermission to go into so-called ‘Bantu’ townships and homelands. “Ifeel much more relaxed in post-apartheid South Africa,” he says.

Inother current work, Goldblatt has been making portraits of localgovernment officials. “I’ve become interested in who is running thecountry, at the most local level,” he says.

Much ofGoldblatt’s recent work can be seen in his new book Intersections.Almost all of the photos in this book were shot with a 4x5,large-format camera. Aerial photographs and some others, such as onestaken underground in an asbestos mine, were done on medium-format colornegative, in contrast to his earlier 35mm black-and-white pictures.

Inthe late 1990s, Goldblatt began his work about blue asbestos mining andthe resulting disease and death. “That’s when I got hooked on doingwork in color,” he says. “You can’t make it blue in black and white.”

Althoughmining is a major theme in Goldblatt’s personal work, this mining storywas particularly personal to him. A friend of his died fromMesothelioma, a cancer almost exclusively caused by exposure to blueasbestos. “Having seen somebody die, it’s an appalling disease,” hesays. “My friend was a farmer’s wife. Many people who have contractedMesothelioma were not miners.”

Goldblatt himself has alsobreathed the lethal asbestos dust while working on the story. But asthe disease takes a long time to develop, sometimes up to 50 yearsafter exposure, he figures old age will catch up with him first.

Goldblattmainly does non-commissioned work these days. “I now exhibit my workand sell my prints. … otherwise we would be destitute,” he says. “[But]there is a danger in that … I’ve got to be very wary of takingphotographs to sell,” he says. “That danger is ever present.”

“I want to take photographs simply because I need to … scratch an itch.”